Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Charlotte Bronte Vs Jane Austen
I've read three Jane Austen novels, and enjoyed them all. But something keeps drawing me back to the Bronte sisters' novels. While I should have long since started reading Emma, Jane Austen's fourth novel, instead I'm reading Shirley, my Bronte sisters' fifth book. Austen fills her novels with plenty of social commentary, some of which she drops in as satire. They are by far easier reading than the Bronte sisters' fiction. And yet...
Like Jane Austen's novels, Shirley informs me about the time in which it was written. In this case, she's introducing me to life in Yorkshire, England during the Napoleonic Wars. While Textile Mill owners felt the need to industrialize to keep down expenses, this put tremendous numbers of people out of work. As Mill owners were not allowed to sell their textiles to America, as a result of treaty issues during the war, this severely limited their income. The need to industrialize put tremendous numbers of the poor out of work. This leads to the Luddite rebellion against industrialization. Through Robert Moore, the mill owner, we even learn of Wellington's tactics, victories, and failures during the Napoleonic Wars. Then, of course, there are attitudes toward women, and the role they were expected to play, in the early nineteenth century English society.
Perhaps it's the pain that undergirds the Bronte sisters' novels that imbue them with added richness and depth. There's no doubting that Jane Austen's characters undergo plenty of pain in her stories. But pain seems to seeps from the very pores of the Bronte sisters' novels. It bleeds from every scene, every page. Consider, for a minute, Caroline Helstone. Her father died, and her mother abandoned her. She lives with her uncle, who thinks that all women are simple, if not useless, creatures. He refuses to deal with her as a real person. His wife, by all accounts a beautiful young woman with spirit, ostensibly died ignored and unloved within a few years of their marriage. Shirley herself is an orphan, forced to operate in a man's world, with only her former governess for company. It's the pain, and the loss she senses, that draws Shirley to Caroline.
But then, unlike Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters lived in poverty. Due to poor living conditions, her brother Branwell and her sister Emily died while Charlotte was writing Shirley. Her remaining sister Anne died the year of Shirley's publication. I suppose it's that hard struggle for life, and the unavoidable reality of death, undergirds Shirley, and all the Bronte sisters' novels, with such vivid pain and loss.
Still, while I apparently find the Bronte sisters' novels more compelling, I'm glad Jane Austen didn't have to experience that.